Amid Heath Ledger Fallout, Has Media Ignored Young Male Stars in Crisis?

Who knew the next blond starlet in crisis would be a man?

As I write this, actor Heath Ledger's death hasn't been attributed to Hollywood excess -- though police have said his room was filled with sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication.

But when I heard the 28-year-old actor had been found dead just months after splitting from his fiancee and the mother of his 2-year-old daughter, I wondered: Why hadn't we heard much about his problems before now?

At a time when we're drowning in dispatches about the various debilitations of Britney, Lindsay, Amy and Paris, news about the death of Oscar-nominated actor Ledger seemed to hit us from a pop culture blind spot.

Let's be clear about an important point: Because Ledger's death hasn't been explained, we don't yet know if he died from deteriorating personal circumstances. Friends and colleagues have said one reason his death is so shocking is because he wasn't the kind of party animal targeted by tabloid headlines.

But if addiction or suicide played a role, Ledger wouldn't be the only underreported male celebrity in crisis. Actor Brad Renfro, who nailed roles in the films Apt Pupil and The Client, struggled with substance abuse for years before his death Jan. 15. Wedding Crashers co-star Owen Wilson offered a clown's smile to the world before his suicide attempt in August.

And I've already written about how 24 star Kiefer Sutherland hasn't received one-tenth the media attention of Paris Hilton for his 48-day stay in the slammer over drunken driving charges in December. Hollywood lore says episodes of Fox's action adventure show may have been rewritten to cover Sutherland's injuries from drinking escapades, yet he escapes the caustic press attention lavished on young women self-destructing in Hollywood.

Even '80s TV icon Michael J. Fox sounded a sympathetic note in Esquire magazine: "I have such empathy for all these young women. I was there, and I did all that crap. We'd rip it up, y'know? And we never got busted on any of that stuff."

"I do think the celebrity news industry pays considerably more attention to the bad girls of the business," said Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death and Hilton's incarceration were the only tabloid celebrity stories to draw huge amounts of coverage in mainstream media.

"Let's look at obvious factors: three including Lohan extremely attractive blond women with sex and sexuality as part of their larger story," said Jurkowitz. "There's a level of voyeurism which has to do with basic sex and sex appeal which makes these women ripe for more press coverage."

The deluge of spotty reporting in the wake of Ledger's surprise demise -- even the New York Police Department spokesman was passing along spurious tales of the actor dying in an apartment owned by Mary-Kate Olsen, which was later dismissed -- highlights the dangers from the immediate demand for salacious details in the 24-hour news cycle.

There are legitimate journalistic reasons to find Ledger's death compelling: He was an Oscar-nominated actor who died the day this year's nominations were announced. He was a talented young actor some felt was a breakout role away from Brad Pitt-level fame.

He plays the Joker in this summer's new Batman movie -- a role that was a turning point even for film icon Jack Nicholson nearly 20 years ago. He was an intensely private actor who seemed the last person poised for Death by Hollywood Excess.

And he made the mistake of passing away in the world's media capital, literally around the corner from many of the media outlets which rushed to cover his death.

"Kiefer Sutherland ran really hard for a long time . . . (but) Heath Ledger was as close to a normal guy as you could get in show business," said Courtney Hazlett, author of the celebrity and pop culture column Scoop! for MSNBC.com. "It was impossible to be a New Yorker, hang out in certain neighborhoods, and not have an experience running into him."

Hazlett also noted the difference in coverage that male celebrities in crisis receive, noting that famous fathers rarely have their parenting abilities questioned in the way moms such as Spears and Smith endured.

The paper which employs me had a compelling story Tuesday cobbling together a possible obit for modern starlets from the details of past deaths, but it focused on females. And when the Associated Press admitted preparing an advance obituary on Britney Spears -- an honor usually reserved for much older celebrities -- the wire service's managing editor for entertainment news cited the death of troubled B-movie actor Smith as inspiration.

(My fave quote from that story came from a section on how it's tough to predict which stars will die when: "Who in the '60s would have thought Keith Richards would outlast John Denver?")

The hysteria over Ledger's death and the imbalance of coverage for women highlights an important need -- not for less journalism about troubled celebrities, but better journalism.

The memory of someone as talented as Heath Ledger deserves no less.

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